Landlord David Pollard looks back fondly on 17 years running the anarchic, all-hours East London pub – including a certain machete incident in '98
You could almost hear the agonised screams coming from every grotty East London drag queen and bedraggled after-hours clubber when the Joiners Arms announced this week that it was shutting its doors. The beloved gay landmark has been welcoming punters past its plastic curtains since 1997, when landlord David Pollard relaunched the dingy Hackney Road pub as the kind of anarchic, all-inclusive venue that could only exist in London.
Last year, the Joiners won its battle against the council, which threatened its late-night licenc. Sadly, it didn't stand a chance against property developers who want to demolish the bar to make way for a block of flats. We rung up David to talk about 17 years of running the Joiners, his hopes to find a new venue in Bethnal Green, and a very concerning incident with a machete.
"The Joiners Arms was in quite a poor state when we first looked at it. About 18 months before moving in, someone had been shot outside the pub. It was run by a holding company and close to being delicensed. It was 1997, and it was pretty awful around there at the time.
(When I took over), the East London Advertiser did a piece which had a photograph of me at the bar with my dog on my knee, with the headline 'HORROR MURDER PUB TURNS GAY'. When that came out, I was walking the dog in the park round the corner and this old woman says, 'Hey, you've got the Joiners Arms haven't you?' I said yes, and she told me, 'I recognised you because of your dog!'
Most people were alright; the East End is quite welcoming in that day. But there was one day in 1998 where I ended up with a machete against my throat. A man came in and asked me for a cigarette. I said no and he tried to hit me, there was a commotion. Then he went home, came back with a machete and pushed it against my throat. I remember saying, 'Please don't kill me!' Obviously, he didn't... It was the East End, very much so.
Everyone said I was mad. Nobody thought I could make a go of it. Even local gay landlords – they were the worst – didn't give me any time at all. But I was 40-something, less fettered to the past and less apologetic. I wasn't grateful for the freedom; I expected it. And I think I'm just awkward and stubborn!
My great pleasure in running the Joiners is when there's lots of people enjoying themselves, you look at the mixture of people – all ages and everything – and it's an incredible feeling. We're unique. The variety of people there, you think: 'Their grandparents probably tried to shoot each other. And here they are trying to fuck each other!'
It's what every bar should be. You see (young) people dancing, just happy and innocent and enjoying themselves. I'm 60. When I was younger, to be that safe somewhere... There were always dangers. And I don't want young people to know what the past was like. I think they should be aware of history, but I'm very happy they're not facing all that rubbish in the same way.
We're the first pub to sign up to the Living Wage for staff. That's a source of great pride. The Museum of London did an exhibition in the Joiners Arms and it was televised on Newsnight. We won that hearing last year before the council, which was a major thing. All the testimonials that people gave in support of us, their letters were in a big thick file of evidence on our side. It made me cry sometimes. People were so complimentary about the Joiners. It has been a big part of most of my life, but a lot of other people's lives.
I'm feeling pretty optimistic at the moment (that we can find a new venue). We're looking at railway arches in Bethnal Green for the future. We won't know anything this week, but I hope we'll know something next week. I made a phone call this morning and I hope that will result in negotiations starting.
I'm a publican by conviction. I've always worked in pubs, although it was mostly part-time work. The pub has a great space in social history. Apps like Grindr have a physical involvement, but it's anonymous sex even when the other person's actually there. But meeting each other in a bar, chatting, well – that's where you meet your friends, isn't it?"